Eight days removed from the NFL’s free agency, the New England Patriots are facing a scenario in which they lose four members of their linebacker corps: Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins Sr., Elandon Roberts and Shilique Calhoun are all headed for unrestricted free agency. While Roberts and Calhoun are not expected to generated a significant market, it would not be a surprise if New England had to see both Van Noy and Collins leave.
Consequently, the team might have to address the position during the offseason — in particular when it comes to the edge/move positions that the two veteran defenders have filled during their time in New England. Free agency does offer some potential replacements like the Los Angeles Rams’ Dante Fowler, the Green Bay Packers’ Blake Martinez, or the New York Giants’ Markus Golden, but the team would be smart to also look at the draft.
After all, college players are usually playing on more cost-effective contracts than veteran free agency signings over a long term — something the Patriots need both when looking at their current salary cap situation (the team is expected to have only around $29.07 million in cap space, per Miguel Benzan) and the overall age of their roster on the defensive side of the ball. Luckily, this year’s draft offers some intriguing prospects at just this position of potential need.
Boards have yet to be set and the pre-draft evaluation process is still ongoing, but the Patriots might be in a position to get some versatile help along their defensive edge on day one or early on day two of the draft. LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson has as high an upside as any defender in the draft and is therefore possibly out of New England’s range). Iowa’s A.J. Epanesa and Yetur Gross-Matos from Penn State, meanwhile, are candidates to come off the board around or after the 23rd overall selection in round one.
The best fit for the Patriots expected to be drafted in this range, however, might be Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun — an opinion shared by Pro Football Focus in a recent article evaluating perfect target players for each of the NFL’s 32 teams. It is not hard to see why Baun was picked as New England’s best fit given his impressive performance at the scouting combine last week in combination with his natural versatility.
PFF’s Ben Linsey wrote the following about Baun:
Baun is somewhat stuck between positions as he transitions to the NFL. He played almost exclusively as an edge defender at Wisconsin, where he produced at a high level as a pass rusher. Last year, his 91.0 pass-rushing grade was a top-10 mark among qualifying FBS pass rushers. He showed, however, that he could also perform out in space in coverage, earning a 91.1 coverage grade over the last two seasons on 195 coverage snaps. At only 238 pounds, he may be better suited as an off-ball linebacker given his combination of size and fluidity.
While he may not have a clearly defined role entering the league, Baun seems like a prototypical Patriots defender due to his ability to wear multiple hats: he can play the hybrid move role Jamie Collins filled for New England in 2019, or serve as a stout outside linebacker and edge setter like Van Noy did last year. What helps him do that is an impressive athletic profile that may not be on Collins’ level but still stands out.
As calculated by Pride of Detroit’s Kent Lee Platte, Baun registered a Relative Athletic Score of 8.82 for his workout at the combine — not as good as Collins’ 9.33 but better than Van Noy’s 7.5:
Zack Baun posted an elite RAS, and for those thinking he's an edge he posted a 7.0 flat cone time. pic.twitter.com/ocbttnlKqp— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 1, 2020
Baun’s stock was already high before the combine — he was projected to be selected as early as the second round — due to his combination of football intelligence and starter upside, but he still managed to push himself to the forefront of the edge defender/outside linebacker discussion by delivering an impressive workout in Indianapolis. He ran the 40-yard dash in a strong 4.65 seconds, but really shined in terms of his acceleration and short-area quickness.
His 10-yard split was just 1.59 seconds, while he finished the 3-cone drill in 7 seconds flat. Add it all up and you get a strong athlete capable of potentially filling Van Noy’s or Collins’ shoes if asked to do that, and a player who would fit in well with the Patriots’ current personnel at outside linebacker: Chase Winovich is coming off an impressive rookie season in which he ranked fourth on the team with 24.5 quarterback disruptions, while Derek Rivers and Keionta Davis are trying to prove their value after injuries slowed their growth early in their respective careers.
Adding a player like Baun to the equation — even if one of Van Noy and Collins is retained or other outside free agents are brought in — would not just add another layer of depth, but also improve the position’s long-term outlook alongside potential starter Chase Winovich. The question of course will be if the Patriots end up in a position in which they can take Baun early on day two. After all, the team currently lacks a second-round selection after trading it to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu last year.
Moving down the board on day one in order to fill the current void between the 23rd and the 87th overall selections seems like the best course of action for New England anyway, and it might just help the team position itself to draft Baun.